And so we come full circle in the Indiana Jones saga as Indy once again faces the Nazis, this time while going in search of the Dial of Destiny. It’s a bittersweet farewell (unless it makes enough money to tempt all concerned with another installment), rife with complicated action sequences that don’t all succeed in taking the collective breath away, and some plot holes that, in a tighter, more ebullient film, might not matter. Still, Harrison Ford as the archeologist icon has a grizzled, grumpy sort of melancholy that refuses pity, self or other, for a failing body and life. It is the saving grace of a film that at times falls into a simulacrum of what the franchise should deliver, while echoing its heroically swooping camerawork and that rousing theme by John Williams. You’re humming it in your head now, aren’t you? You can’t help it.
Indy, as mentioned, is battling old age, with the sort of self-deprecating humor we have come to expect from him, and with a sense of malaise that the best times are behind him. Any times, actually, what with retiring from teaching terminally unengaged students at Hunter College in 1969, and the impending separation and divorce from the love of his life, Marion.
We begin with a flashback to the waning days of World War II, as Berlin is in ruins and Hitler is hunkered down in a bunker beneath it. Indy (Harrison Ford, duh) and his pal Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) are hot on the trail of the Spear of Longinus, the relic said to have pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross, and reputed to grant invincibility to whomever possesses it. They are sidetracked, though, by the Antikythera, or rather half of that strange, 2000-year-old mechanical device found in a shipwreck by sponge divers carried by Dr. Voller (Mads Mikelssen), the physicist tasked with getting the spear into Hitler’s hands. Why a physicist and not an archeologist or one of the Hitler’s occultists? Because even though it makes little sense, they need a physicist later in the story.
That part is historically true, though the origins of this complicated assemblage of gears is still a mystery, for the purposes of this adventure, it was created by Archimedes and does more than mere computations. We’re talking the time-space continuum, though that Greek mathematician would not have understood that terminology. No negative reflection on him intended.
In a dazzling display of the franchise’s patented effusion of bluster, comedy, and derring-do, including a breathless chase across the top of a speeding train under fire, Indy escapes the clutches of certain death not once, but twice, while saving the Antikythera. This leaves Basil free to spend the rest of his life obsessing over the artifact, and Indy to bide his time until the adventure of the Crystal Skulls that will reunite him with Marion.
Flash forward to 1969, and men have walked on the moon. Meanwhile, Indy is spiking his morning coffee with liquor and yelling at the neighbors in his shabby walk-up apartment. That’s when Basil’s daughter, and Indy’s goddaughter, Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), shows up with breaking news about the where the Antikythera’s missing half might be, and some mysterious covert operatives hot on her trail. That Dr. Voller, now known as Dr. Schmidt, the physicist behind the moon landing, is also involved should come as no surprise. No more than that Indy, when pursued by the covert operatives, should show the same inventive bravado that saved him so many times in the past, doing things like riding a horse into the New York City subway system. Yet there is something lethargic about the pacing, skirting just this side of moribund in this and several of the subsequent action set pieces to follow. A reminder of Indy’s advancing years? If so, a bad choice that drags the film down.
What made the original Indy film so refreshing was the way it lovingly tweaked the action-adventure genre. The Dial of Destiny has all but lost its tweak. The pithy verve that let the audience buy into a plot that went over the top and then kept going is glaringly absent. Sure Helena is a worthy co-adventurer, refining Marion’s spunk into a hard-edged drive that is wonder to behold for its single-minded focus, absolute fearlessness, and endless resourcefulness. Not to mention a wit that bites harder than the eels (in lieu of snakes) with which she and Indy must cope at one point. Waller-Bridge carries her character’s self-sufficiency with the same lightness and confidence as the backpack that Helena totes on expedition, or the red satin blouse she sports in a Moroccan den of ill-repute.
Call backs to the franchise abound, with old characters popping up to lend a hand, and new ones hearkening others, particularly Ethann Isidore as Teddy, Helena’s tween side-kick, jack-of-all trades, and ice cream aficionado. As a kid wise beyond his years, but still a kid, albeit one who reflects the raw deal life handed him, Isidor has a surprising gravitas, as well as an incipient mustache.
INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY pulls itself together for a whiz-bang of a finale after a bloated and saggy midsection. It goes out leaving us on tenterhooks as to what fate has in store for Indy, and with an action sequence as impressive as the de-aging CGI used on Ford, Jones, and Mikkelsen during the opening’s 1944 sequence. It also leaves us feeling Indy’s age, boldly displayed in boxer shorts at one point, and hoping that the adventurer can finally get the nap he has so richly earned.